by Morgan Byrn
Have you ever looked at an old photograph? As a kid, I thought that the people living in the past must have been grumpy. In those old photographs, people are usually not smiling. This made me think. Did people not smile back then? When we think about photography, we have to go back to the beginning, to 1839.
The first photographs were called daguerreotypes (duh, gare, ro, types). At a studio, a photographer would take the person’s picture. The picture was developed on metal! Even with this new way to take a picture, it was not for everyone. It was too expensive for most people to buy one.
In 1856, the invention of the tintype became the new way to get a picture made. It’s called a tintype, but it was printed on iron! People still went to studios to get their pictures taken. It became popular to add backgrounds and props to one’s picture. It was easier and cheaper to make a tintype. Now most people could have their picture made.
Not long after the tintype came the carte de visite. Now the photographer could take eight photos during one visit. The picture was developed on paper. Then it was glued to cardboard. This made it faster and cheaper to make a photo. It was very popular to give your photo to your friends and family. People could even buy special photo albums. It wasn’t just normal people getting their pictures taken. Famous people like Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria had their pictures taken too. Stores would sell these photos in shops. People would collect them like you might collect Pokémon cards today.
Cabinet cards were introduced not long after the carte de visite. Cabinet Cards were a bigger carte de visite. Even though it was easier to get your picture taken, most people still looked serious in their pictures. Today historians and others still can’t figure out why everyone looks so cross. Some think it took too long to take the picture. One might have to sit still for one to three minutes. That’s a long time to hold a smile. Others think it’s because people wanted to look like the kings and queens in the paintings everyone admired. Even without knowing why, old photographs are very important to people today.
Old photographs can tell historians a lot of things. They can show fashion at that time and how it changed. People also took pictures with things they liked. By looking at all the old photographs they left behind, we can see how people enjoyed their day at the studio. Does your family have any old photographs? Are the people smiling in them?
Photograph: a picture or likeness obtained by photography
Studio: the working place of a painter, sculptor, or photographer
Develop: to make visible by such a method
Collect: to gather an accumulation of (objects) especially as a hobby
Historian: a student or writer of history
Why didn’t most people buy daguerreotypes?
What material changed from the tintype to the carte de visite and why was that important?
Why are photographs so important to people today? What can we learn?
Watch Mo Rocca learn about Tintypes at the Henry Ford Museum:
Recreate an old photo with your family or friends.
Standards for 3rd-5th Grade:
SSP.01 Gather information from a variety of primary and secondary sources, including:
● Printed materials (e.g., literary texts, newspapers, political cartoons, autobiographies, speeches, letters, personal journals)
● Graphic representations (e.g., maps, timelines, charts, artwork)
● Media and technology sources
SSP.05 Develop historical awareness by:
● Recognizing how and why historical accounts change over time
● Recognizing how past events and issues might have been experienced by the people of that time, with historical context and empathy rather than present-mindedness
● Identify patterns of continuity and change over time, making connections to the present
3rd Grade Standard
3.16 Describe how scarcity, supply, and demand affect the prices of products.
Morgan Byrn is the Family Programs Coordinator at the Tennessee State Museum.